Northwest at Raven
Fiction by Anna Mockler
Seattle's a grey, bland, drone, Swede, rain, down town. Seattle says, no need to create a ruckus, says, all that color’s vulgar, says, why d’you want to call attention to yourself? The town takes you by the elbow down its wide clean sidewalks to its freshly painted street-crossings. Look both ways, it reminds you before releasing its hold.
In November 1999 a bunch of hopeful puppet-waving kids linked hands at its street-crossings, sang and danced their private protests against global control of this, their world. The cops knew it was coming. They were prepared. Bulletproof, black-clad, they drove them out of camera range; when it came down to it, they plucked them in their hundreds from the streets. Days before, they’d cleared the stage, herded the transients into tent camps over the ridge and out of sight, into churches and food banks who opened their parking lots in a week-long embrace. City administration authorized the clean-up. It's so easy for visitors to get the wrong first impression.
Three months later, those charitable arms were folded across chests. Everybody’s charity was used up. After 101 days of consecutive measurable precipitation, everything was back to usual.
* * *
On the 101st day, between two downtown dumpsters a black garbage bag sat shaking in the rain. A skinny kid in a hooded sweatshirt crept up on it.
"Grandma? You didn't show up for the free sandwiches. How come you wasn't there? Grandma?"
The bag quivered. The boy laid a tuna on whole wheat on a milk crate. "Look. I brung you a sandwich."
A mitten emerged from a hole in the plastic bag. Rain soaked the brown wool, coursed down on either side.
"Go away," the bag said.
"C'mon, c'mon. No reason to be like that. Just let me see a little, alright? Grandma?"
"I ain't your grandma and get out of here. Don’t you know what curiosity did to the cat?"
The kid stood up with the sandwich. He walked a couple of steps before turning back, before replacing it on the crate. "Maybe some other time," he said, hugging the wall on his way out the alley.
* * *
Seattle has strict civility rules about sleeping on benches or sitting on sidewalks, but come the dog end of February, the cops have met their quotas. They're not out rousting; they're in the station house listening to an earnest consultant tell them how they could defuse a situation. Half a dozen of the guys pass around an old Beretta in the back row. Like what James Bond used to have. "Not going to be any situation again," a rookie said. The old lieutenant he looked to nodded. "Nope. Tell you that."
* * *
From the streaming shaking bag a burst of color, ruby azure verdigris ochre, flashed out and taloned the tuna sandwich.
"Hey lady: I saw that."
The bag slipped on its own plastic, scrabbling to stand.
"That's right. On your feet."
"Christ Jesus Benny," the woman in the bag complained, slipping back to her seat. "Thought you was a cop. You're so sharp you'll cut yourself someday."
"Hey now, hey now,” he said, as a man might speak to a dog in a thunderstorm. “Good to see you too, Grandma." He attached a blue tarp with rubber bands to roof the space between dumpsters.
Monday nights, dumpsters are nearly empty. It's not a bad night to sit near them, rain thrumming on the tarp, tuna ready made for supper, company.
"Not bad," the old woman said.
Benny lowered himself onto the other crate. He sighed and popped open two tallboys. "So," offering her one, "how's it going?"
The woman pulled the beer inside the bag with her. “They pushed me off my grate. Six weeks, I had that grate.”
“Ah, that’s too bad, Grandma. That one by the opera house?”
“Yeah. They pushed me off it. They was going to do Rigoletto, too.”
“That something you like?”
“I don’t know what it is, Benny, but Italian opera and big handouts goes hand in hand.”
“Go figure,” said Benny. He stretched out his thick legs and took another swig from his can. “You gonna drink yours?”
* * *
The rookie cop put the Beretta aside. "Had to roust Benny today." The old lieutenant nodded. “Not like I was looking to,” the rookie explained.
“Old Benny. Used to fix my father’s hats,” the older man remembered.
“This tourist couple they didn’t like him playing the recorder. They said they couldn’t hear the tour guide. I asked him nice, couple of times, but he kept playing. Camptown Races.”
“Jesus.” The lieutenant shook his head, smiling. “Fucking Benny. What a pisser.”
"Old Grandma’s there hollering, 'Benny, I’m always saying you can’t play for shit.'"
They laughed together. “You know about her?” asked the old lieutenant. “You know what she looks like under all that?”
* * *
“Got sentenced today..” Benny sipped his beer, smiling at the rain pushing Styrofoam cups around in the alley’s cobbles.
“Hellfire, Benny, that’s a damn shame.”
“Yup. These people told me my sentence was, ‘I’m no good’ and I says, ‘I coulda told you that,’ and they said no, they meant I should change my sentence.”
The old woman stuck her fingers in her ears “Green Acres / Is the place for me” she sang.
“I oughtta say ‘I’m good’ or something like that. I told them,” Benny drained his beer and crushed the can in his large fist. “I told them it’s no trouble to me, being no good the way I am. I don’t do nobody harm. You gonna drink yours?” he continued without pause.
The woman gulped her beer. "I got to get more calories," she muttered.
"What's that?" He tossed the can towards the gutter.
"I got to get my weight back up."
"What's wrong? You look great, like a fashion victim. I mean, for your age."
The woman pushed aside the bag hood to glare at him. He threw up his hands: "Hey, hey," he protested.
"Benny, you don't know nothing," she growled. "I get my weight back up, the pictures stretch back out. That's it. I'm in the money. See? I'm penthouse at the Mark Hopkins, car and driver, lobster and diamonds. This dirt, this place, this town's nothing but a shadow."
The man sipped his beer, considering. "No offense, grandma, but what are you talking about?"
"Look it, here." She pushed up her left sleeves to the elbow and stretched out her forearm. "See that?"
"Holy shit! That is ... that is something else. What is it, Michael Angelo?"
"You're such a rube. It's Washington Crossing the Delaware. Angelo, he's on my back," the woman huffed.
"You should be in a circus or something."
"Circus. Circus is where I started, crying out loud," she said. "Paula Peerless, Painted Pulchritude. That was my billing. I was spiffing the kale then, sport, believe it. I'm a gallery of famous art from neck to ankles. My backside alone is more education than a lifetime in Lincoln, Nebraska."
"I heard some talk about this," Benny admitted.
"Well, you probably didn't hear enough. And don't go puffing the skee, neither. I'm Anne O'Nimity until I get my weight back up, see?" She released her skin. It fell into papery folds along her bones. Washington’s eye rested on the boat prow. The Delaware became an easy hop.
"How come you got skinny when it took all that cash off you?"
"Ah. A three-shell shill broke my heart. I got soaked in a blowdown. Pneumonia. Tell you, benefits is lousy in the performing arts. Time I escaped the how-are-we-today people I was down 60 pounds. Near like what I am now. Couldn't get a contract or an advance or nothing. I ate my nut. Then I ate air."
Benny looked through all his pockets. "I got half a Snickers " he offered. "You want a couple more beers?"
She nodded, slightly. When she could no longer hear his feet splashing, she pulled her right arm out of its sleeves. "Behold, in living color, Whistler's Mother, ladies and gentlemen," she crooned. Rain plashed on her skin, pulled taut against her elbow. The black-and-white woman in the rocking chair nodded her black bonnet. When the skin was released; Whistler’s Mother’s bonnet collapsed over her bony nose. The old woman in the black plastic bag announced to the water coursing down the cobblestones: "Come on in for more of Peerless Paula: Every Inch A Work Of Art. A Gal Who’s a Gallery Unequaled in the Hemisphere."
Her arms wrapped around a million shriveled dollars, she bit caloric chocolate. The steam plume of her exhale licked the down rain and sighed away.